Boundary Bay Owls

There has been a lot of press lately about the large migration of snowy owls down into the continental U.S. Every once and awhile (known as an irruption), their numbers really spike and this happens to be one of those years. As it turns out, one of the big “hot spots” for them is just across the border in British Columbia at Boundary Bay near the town of Tsawwaassen. Some friends of mine visited a few weeks ago which got me curious and I did some research. Lots of owls, sitting around, not far off established trails- my kind of wildlife photography!

Originally, I was just thinking about a day trip to Boundary Bay. My girlfriend suggested that we make it an overnight trip and that turned out to be a GREAT idea. The main congregation of snowy owls is found near the end of 72nd St, along the raised dike. From the 72nd St junction westward to 64th St, the snowy owls are generally found resting on top of the driftwood pieces that tides have washed up against the base of the protective dike.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160th @ F16, 500mm, ISO800)
Hawk at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
For the most part, the owls seem to tolerate the HUGE influx of admirers viewing and photographing their stay. The majority of visitors stay close to 72nd St (site of the largest gathering of owls) but folks willing to walk further west along the dike towards 64th St will also see more owls, bald eagles, great blue herons, and other wildlife. Even fewer people travel east along the dike from 72nd St but don’t let that stop you! I found a couple snowy owls (without any one around) along with a great blue heron and more bald eagles.

As longtime visitors to my blog can tell, I’m a landscape/nature photographer first & foremost. Any wildlife I have previously photographed has usually been the result of being at the right place, right time. In the last year, I purchased a Sigma 50-500mm lens (also known as a “Bigma”) and a gimbal head in hopes of adding more wildlife photos to my portfolio. We arrived at Boundary Bay during the late afternoon and were able to get a parking spot somewhat close to the dike since people were beginning to leave.

Snowy Owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (OFF-TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Foggy scene- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 420mm, ISO100)
Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F16, 270mm, ISO100)
The weekend’s forecast was for sunshine and 50 degree temperatures but that was quickly changing at Boundary Bay. A thick maritime fog was advancing towards us from the Strait of Georgia. Eventually Mount Baker disappeared from view and reduced visibility settled in. Although there would be no sunset, the conditions did offer an opportunity to capture some unique photographs. We turned around at 64th St and made our way back to 72nd St. The failing light really provided a challenge since my Sigma is a F6.3 @ 500mm. Thankfully, the low light and higher ISO capabilities of my Pentax K-5 were up to the task.

We got back to my truck well after sunset and the place had pretty much cleared out for the day. Along the way back, however, we were treated to some owl activity such as perching even closer to the dike trail and some flyovers. We traveled the back roads towards Tsawwaassen where we spent the night at the Coast Hotel (recommended!). The next morning, the skies were clear and I was excited to head back in time for sunrise. I had expected a number of wildlife photographers would already be present at Boundary Bay but that wasn’t the case. In fact, we were the third car to show up!

Snowy Owl and fog- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/25 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO400)
Snowy owls in tree- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/8 @ F7.1, 230mm, ISO400)
Snowy owl at dusk- Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/3 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO3200)
I quickly suited up and we were off. For my sunrise shots, I decided to head out into the marshy, grass filled near-shore environment. It was cold enough over night to frost which made travel a little easier. As you get to the mudflats, there are some beautiful S-shaped tidal inlets which perfectly reflected the developing light show. Although the skies to the east over Mount Baker were devoid of clouds, the skies to our south had a series of high, wispy clouds which began to reflect the warm light of sunrise. It was truly one of my favorite sunrises of the year and the fact I was able to photograph it and enjoy it with my girlfriend made it even better!

Sunrise began to develop quickly and eventually the sun rose above the horizon between Mount Baker and the Twin Sisters range. The wildlife photographers were beginning to show up in numbers as the light improved. My girlfriend decided to head east along the dike from 72nd St as I decided to head back to the owl concentrations west of 72nd St. I’m going to save any commentary about the behavior of wildlife photographers for another blog post but I was saddened.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 70mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 12mm, ISO100)
I headed further west towards 64th St to get away from the photogs and returned to a large tree alongside the dike which the day before held up to three snowy owls. On this day, two bald eagles were enjoying the high ground. My only experiences with bald eagles are along the North Fork Nooksack River near Mosquito Lake Road (east of Bellingham) and in that area, the eagles tend to “spook” quite easily. At Boundary Bay, the experience is quite the opposite.

I approached the tree in several stages, taking photos along the way. I really thought that they would fly away but they didn’t. In fact, a woman walked right up to an interpretive display near the base of the tree and the eagles did little more than look down inquisitively. After getting my fair share of eagle photos, I headed back to 72nd St and then further east to meet my girlfriend, who had been calling me throughout the morning about all the wildlife she had been seeing along the dike. Sure enough, I kept seeing what she had.

Sunrise over Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 19mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 14mm, ISO100)
Sunrise over Mount Baker from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F14, 21mm, ISO100)
We eventually returned to 72nd St around 11am and it was rapidly turning into the circus we witnessed the day before. I took a couple more photos (which filled my memory card) and I took that as a sign to leave. After gathering our stuff and checking out from our hotel, we spent a little time to explore the ag fields near Westham Island and Ladner. We were both pretty tired so we made the drive back home, returning just in time to see the kickoff for the Super Bowl. Ok, that last fact made *ME* happier than my girlfriend!

This was a great place to visit and I’m sure we’ll return, even when the snowy owls have left. This was also my first good outing with my Bigma lens supported by a gimbal head. The vast majority of the photos in this blog post were taken with the Bigma and I’m pleased. It’s not the fastest lens at F6.3 on the longest end but the high ISO capabilities of the Pentax K-5 can make up the difference. I do need to dial in the set up of the gimbal head because I still experienced some vibrations of mirror slap while taking photos..

(You’ll notice the terms “TRAIL PHOTO” and “OFF-TRAIL PHOTO” with the picture descriptions. I’ll explain this in an upcoming blog post about wildlife photographers)

Sun clearing the Cascades from Boundary Bay, British Columbia- (OFF TRAIL PHOTO- multiple blended exposures for dynamic range @ F16, 100mm, ISO100)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/80 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owls at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/125 @ F7.1, 420mm, ISO200)
Bald Eagle at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/160 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Bald Eagles at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO200)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/250 @ F7.1, 500mm, ISO100)
Snowy owl at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/100 @ F7.1, 270mm, ISO100)
Coastal fog and Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/20 @ F16, 320mm, ISO100)
Great Blue Heron at Boundary Bay, British Columbia (TRAIL PHOTO- 1/400 @ F16, 500mm, ISO200)

5 Responses to Boundary Bay Owls
  1. Anonymous

    Wow!!!
    Great shots, Steve.
    I’ll be following your experiences and photos.
    Thanks!!!
    Gordy

  2. Steve Cole

    Thank you Gordy!

  3. Patricia Davidson

    Wonderful story and images!

  4. Neneci27

    Stunning pictures Steve!!

    -Eldy

  5. Steve Cole

    Thank you Patricia and Eldy! Very fortunate that we have a special place like this so close to home.